BOISE — Idaho moved into Stage 2 of reopening its economy in the wake of the coronavirus last Saturday.
That means as of May 16, dine-in restaurants, hair and nail salons, and indoor gyms were able to reopen, as long as they meet social distancing and sanitation standards to protect employees and customers. The governor also made a surprise announcement last Thursday that he’s decided to move bars up from Stage 4 of his reopening plan to Stage 3, meaning they could possibly reopen as early as May 30.
Asked if that decision was based on science or political pressure, Little said, “We’ve done everything based on science.” But pressed by reporters for the metrics he relied on for that move, he said, “I would rather loosen it up than tighten it up. I wanted to give everybody as much certainty as we possibly can. To be real accurate about it, it’s a little hard to determine the difference between a restaurant and a bar.”
Little also made another modification to his four-stage “Idaho Rebounds” reopening plan: He decided to modify the requirement for people arriving in Idaho from out of state to self-quarantine for 14 days after their arrival. Once Stage 2 starts, Idaho instead will require that only for people arriving from places where there’s community spread of the novel coronavirus.
“Folks looking to come to Idaho from places with no community spread … are now able to freely enter Idaho,” he said, referring to the situation as of Saturday. “This step will help Idaho’s vital tourism industry while also keeping Idahoans safe.”
He also called on vulnerable individuals to continue to self-isolate, and all Idahoans to continue to practice social distancing, wear masks, wash hands and take other precautions. In Stage 2, gatherings of fewer than 10 people will be allowed, where social distancing can be maintained. Employers are asked to continue to encourage telework, “wherever possible and feasible with business operations,” according to the “Idaho Rebounds” plan, and to return employees to work in phases.
“Employees should return to work in phases and continue to telework wherever possible,” the governor said.
As of Saturday, more than 95% of the businesses in the state will be allowed to open their doors, Little said.
Little also announced that small businesses can now apply for a 30-day supply of personal protective equipment, such as masks, gloves and hand sanitizer, from the state at supplies.idaho.gov, to ensure they are able to reopen successfully and safely.
Little and top state health officials who joined him at the press conference emphasized the need for Idahoans to follow best practices — handwashing, wearing cloth face coverings in public, and limiting contact with others.
“We’ve been diligent protecting our neighbors and ourselves, and we need to continue to do that so that we can keep moving forward,” the governor said.
Here are some other topics the governor and officials addressed in response to questions from reporters:
LT. GOV. McGEACHIN: Asked about Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin’s op-ed distributed around the state this week criticizing Little’s plan and calling for immediately reopening all businesses, Little strongly defended his phased reopening plan and noted that it’s been praised as a model by President Trump and White House officials. “You’ve got to do this incrementally,” he said. In response to reporters’ questions, Little said the last time he spoke to McGeachin was about three weeks ago; the two normally have a scheduled weekly phone call, but that hasn’t happened lately. Asked if they’re on speaking terms, he said, “Well, when we speak we are.” He added, “Our staff and her staff communicate. But I am focused on what’s going on right here. This is what’s important, is keeping people safe and getting the economy back up on its feet, restored. That’s 90% of my focus, day in and day out.”
UNEMPLOYMENT BACKLOG: ”They’re overwhelmed; they’re not caught up,” the governor said. “We’re getting there, but we’re not getting there as fast as I would like to see it. So we’re implementing more and more changes, adding more staff, adding more technology. … I readily admit that we are behind, but so are almost all the other states, given the magnitude of this. Nobody anticipated in a state with 2.8% unemployment that we’d have 125,000 claims.”
FALL SURGE OF CORONAVIRUS: Dr. Christine Hahn, state epidemiologist, said, “Around the country, public heath experts believe that we are very likely to see an increase in cases in the fall. … What we have now is we have the advantage of time. We’ve been educating Idahoans. Idahoans are now familiar with how to socially distance. … It’s possible that even with more cases coming we may be able to not have to go all the way back to a complete shutdown, but be able to keep some businesses open, maybe keep schools open. We have some time to make those plans and prevent that from happening.”
However, she said, “I do worry that people feel like, ‘Oh, it’s over and we can go back to our normal lives.’ We don’t think that’s the case. We don’t know that we’re going to be living back to normal for a long time. I hope that Idahoans see businesses opening, but see their continued responsibility to socially distance, wear face coverings in public places, washing their hands all the time like we keep emphasizing.”
Little agreed. “If people say, ‘Yahoo, life’s open again, we can go back to life as it was last summer,’ that concerns me,” he said. “It is not going to be normal.”
Idaho Press reporters Tommy Simmons and Ashley Miller contributed.